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“A MONTH ago we were hungry. Now we have food.”
Those words, spoken by the preacher at the harvest celebration in Ekwendeni CCAP Church, Malawi, brought home just how far removed we in the UK (certainly town and city-dwellers) have got from the food production process.
When our crop – wheat, potatoes, whatever – fails, the supermarkets source it from elsewhere and we grumble about the increased prices. In Malawi, if their crop fails, people starve.
The Malawian preacher’s words have come back to me vividly over the past couple of months as the latest scandal to hit British food has made its way through the press, parliament, regulators and legal processes.
It began in mid-January as what seemed a relatively minor story. What was initially described as ‘horse DNA’ was found in a number of beef products, produced by two processing plants in Ireland and sold in a number of British supermarkets.
But what does it say about modern food production methods that what seems to be widespread fraud has been able to go on? And is there – or should there be – a Christian response to the scandal?
“‘As you sow, so shall you reap’,” says Adrian Shaw, who works for the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council.
“This is a commentary on the state of food culture in Britain, that we effectively expect supermarkets and others to take all the decisions for us, to do all these checks, but we expect it to be done on the cheap.”
His colleague Dr Murdo Macdonald, Policy Officer of the Church's Society, Religion and Technology project, agrees: “This is a reflection of the kind of thing you are going to expect if you are driving prices down as your only concern.”
Adrian and Murdo were part of the group examining the subject of food for a Church and Society report to last year’s General Assembly. Entitled Give Us Our Daily Bread, the report warns that the urban community today is so disconnected from food production that many children do not know that milk comes from cows; and that this disconnect from land and nature presents a specific problem for Christians:
While preparing the report, the authors visited two farms. One, Drumness Farm in Perthshire, is a large operation which they describe as ‘certainly no agricultural desert’ and ‘rich with wildlife’ but which comes with a large carbon footprint and has the prices for its products firmly controlled by the supermarkets.
The other, Whitmuir Farm in the Scottish Borders, is a small, organic farm which sells directly to customers through a box service and its own farm shop.
However, there are projects, including some associated with churches, that are challenging that stereotype.
While the Church of Scotland has previously strongly supported fair trade and sustainable agriculture, the outcome of last year’s report was not as prescriptive as supermarkets = bad, small-scale = good. In fact, the report notes the positive impact of supermarkets – they have increased the range of food available and make it available at low cost – along with concern about the imbalanced market and pressure on suppliers.
Instead, the key message is just to take an interest, not only in your food shopping but also where you eat out and what your children are being fed in school. “Do you know where your food comes from, do you know how it is produced?” says Adrian. “Just ask questions.”
The importance of which has only been emphasised by the horsemeat scandal.
The Church and Society Council has a leaflet, ‘Food is a Gift from God’, which provides discussion points to help congregations consider these issues. The “Give Us Our Daily Bread” report is available at www.churchofscotland.org.uk
Eco-congregation Scotland’s annual gathering, on April 20 in the Grassmarket Community Project Hall, is on the theme of food. One of the workshops will be run by Pete Richie from Whitmuir Farm. Details at www.ecocongregationscotland.org. Read more at www.lifeandwork.org
This is an abridged version of the article which appears in the April issue of Life and Work. Subscribe to the magazine of the Church of Scotland here
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